September 24, 2012
Resident Fantasy Genius
Low-Cost Saves for Your Keeper League
For the past five years, as the season winds down, I’ve made it a habit of discussing one of my favorite keeper league strategies: stashing potential closers. This, of course, isn’t viable in every single keeper league based on format, depth, and rule quirks, but in leagues where it is, it can be a powerful way of accruing cheap value for your 2013 squad before the 2012 season even ends.
As I discussed the strategy in detail last season, I’ll simply repost for those who are new to BP:
All keeper leagues are different, but if you are in one where your leaguemates make a habit of keeping top closers, this strategy will be especially good for you. In these leagues, when auction day or draft day rolls around, the number of closers will be limited. Those who haven't kept a top closer will be bidding against each other for the leftovers, the second-tier closers. By default, their prices will rise, quite possibly above their raw value. This can trickle down the list of closers until Matt Capps is being auctioned for some crazy amount, like $18.
So how do you avoid this? Do you simply punt saves? Do you overpay for a closer? Hopefully closers won’t see such heavily inflation and you won’t be pressed to make such a decision. But the intelligent owner will prepare, read the market come draft day, and decide on a course of action.
If you're out of the running this year, the stats you accrue over the remainder of 2012 make no difference to you. You shouldn't have your keepers set in stone yet, although you definitely should have a good idea who they will be. You could, theoretically, drop every player you don't intend to keep, tank, and it wouldn't make an ounce of difference. Of course, I don't advocate this; this type of behavior skews league results, and it certainly would anger the rest of your league if you drop a $45 Miguel Cabrera because you decide he's too expensive to keep. It might even get you kicked out before you make your run for the title in 2013.
Knowing this, feel free to drop any overpriced, old, or otherwise unkeepable players (within reason) and pick up some that fall into the next category: middle relievers with the inside track for a closing job. The owners in your league who are in it for this year might be ignoring these guys since they can't afford to waste active (or even bench) roster spots. However, since you are concerned with next year, take the inside track while you can. Any advantage you can get is one worth pursuing, and there are several to be gained this time of year while many of your opponents don't have the flexibility to make the types of moves you can if you're out of the race.
When Chris Perez gets auctioned for $20 next year, you might be sitting on the Tigers’ newly-anointed closer, Joaquin Benoit, for $1. The great news is that it won't cost you anything in the short term because you're already out of it. Free value.
Of course, there's no way to know who will be closing next year, but you don't have to. If you're out of it, you just need to play the odds a little. Pick up five guys from the next list and, come March, if any of them have been promoted, decide to make that guy a keeper. That'll show the guy who's keeping J.J. Putz for $21.
Last Year’s Results
Last year, three of the relievers who made my list began the year closing games (Kenley Jansen, Jim Johnson, and Tyler Clippard), and another six spent time closing at some point this season (Aroldis Chapman, Casey Janssen, Greg Holland, Glen Perkins, Bobby Parnell, and Luke Gregerson). That’s a decent showing considering how much of a crapshoot it is to try and project saves this early. After all, even if we know for sure that a team will turn to a new closer next season, they always have the option to trade for or sign a closer as opposed to promoting an in-house candidate. Last season, for instance, the Rangers had a terrific candidate in Mike Adams but chose to sign Joe Nathan instead. These are merely educated guesses. It’s a long offseason and anything can happen.
This Year’s List
This year is very different than last. Following the 2011 season, there was a flood of closers set to hit free agency: Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Joe Nathan, Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, and Matt Capps, to name a few. Tons of teams were bound to shake up their ninth-inning situations. With far fewer closers set to become free agents this offseason, however, I expect there to be much less closer turnover. In fact, Mariano Rivera and Jose Valverde are the only closers without a contract (or at least an option) for the 2013 season, and Rivera is about as safe a bet as any free agent ever to re-sign with his current team. That, combined with the emergence of several young closers this season (Chapman, Jansen, and Jason Motte, among others) limits our options for this year’s list, but let’s give it a whirl anyway.
Cleveland does already have a closer—one who is young, good, and under club control—so a changing of the guard might not be the most likely of scenarios. Still, Perez is a logical candidate to be shopped this offseason. He’s beginning to get expensive in arbitration for team that doesn’t figure to contend and has done things to polarize himself with team brass and fans. In the case he gets traded, Vinnie Pestano makes the most sense in terms of an in-house replacement.
The team has a relatively cheap ($4.5 million) Rafael Betancourt locked up for the 2013 with an identical option for 2014, so they have no need to trade their talented closer. Still, Betancourt received a lot of interest at this year’s trade deadline and could well again this offseason. Seeing as how the Rockies currently hold the second-worst record in baseball and probably won’t contend next year, it would make sense to cash out some of their valuable assets for younger players who would be club-controlled for years to come. Betancourt would be at the top of such a list, making room for an up-and-comer like Brothers to take the reins. If Brothers’ control issues worry the team, they could let Matt Belisle serve as interim closer until Brothers is deemed ready.
Jose Valverde has struggled at times this season and is now a free agent, which means his time in Detroit could be coming to a close. The team is already paying Joaquin Benoit near-closer money ($5.5 million per year), so it could make sense to hand the ninth inning to one of baseball’s best (and most expensive) setup men.
Kansas City Royals
Greg Holland has done a commendable job closing following the trade of Jonathan Broxton in July, but incumbent closer Joakim Soria hopes to return from his second Tommy John surgery for the start of the 2013 season. He’s not assured of anything, though, especially since the team would have to pick up a rather expensive $8 million option (or renegotiate). Still, he remains a decent bet to regain his old role if he returns to KC and proves in spring training that he is healthy and effective.
It’s no secret that Heath Bell has been a mess this season, but the Marlins are paying him a crapload of money and don’t want to feel like they’re wasting it. They’ll give Bell every chance to regain the closer role next year, so he’s worth gambling on.
The A’s tried to hand the closer gig to youngster Ryan Cook once already, in the middle of this season, but he proved not quite ready for the challenge. That opened the door for Grant Balfour to reclaim the role, and he has been quite good since. The team has a $4.5 million option on Balfour for next season, so it seems fairly likely he’ll be back. Still, keep Cook in mind.
The Pirates’ situation is similar to Colorado’s. They have a cheap Joel Hanrahan under team control and could be tempted to trade him, although they may be in more of a position to contend next year than Colorado, so the temptation will be lower.
San Francisco Giants
Don’t forget about the beard. The Giants have struggled to find ninth-inning stability in Brian Wilson’s absence this year, so as soon as he’s healthy, I’d expect him to get his job back. Like Soria, he’s working his way back from Tommy John surgery. The team expects him back by the start of next season.
Toronto Blue Jays
Sergio Santos is yet another closer working his way back from injury. Janssen has thrived in the closer role in Santos’ absence this season, and Santos wasn’t nearly as entrenched as Wilson was prior to going down, so it will be interesting to see how this situation plays out.
Clearly, this year’s theme is injured closers looking to regain their old jobs. Drew Storen is already back and looking sharp, and the Nats have already begun the shift of power back by implementing a committee last week. That seems like a signal that they intend to give the job back to Storen next year despite Tyler Clippard’s dominance in the role this season.
There are a number of free agents with the skills to close this offseason, led by Ryan Madson, Mike Adams, and Brandon League. Madson only lost out on a big payday last offseason because he’s terrible at musical chairs, but after missing all of the 2012 season, he seems likely to have to settle for another one-year, incentive-laden deal. Still, he figures to look for such a deal as a closer. Adams is supremely talented and needs only the chance to close. League has experience closing as recently as this month, and his struggles earlier in the year appear to be solved after he fixed a mechanical flaw.
My Top 5 Picks
If I had to make pickups today, here are the five guys I’d target in my keeper league (in order):
1. Brian Wilson
2. Heath Bell
3. Drew Storen
4. Sergio Santos
5. Joakim Soria
Yup, all injury returnees… and Heath Bell, who, well… I’ll just leave it at that. Because some of these guys may already be stashed in DL spots, I’ll rank the rest of the candidates as well:
1. Joaquin Benoit
2. Ryan Madson
3. Vinnie Pestano
4. Mike Adams
5. Rex Brothers
6. Matt Belisle
7. Ryan Cook
8. Jason Grilli
And if you’re in a really deep league, then maybe you could look into some relievers who may not stand a great chance of closing right out of the gate but could get a chance at some point in 2013—guys like Bobby Parnell, Stephen Pryor, Jared Burton, Wade Davis, and Pedro Strop.